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These Shows Helped Shape America’s Attitudes About Gay Relationships

5 minute read

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage would become legal nationwide. Though many factors have contributed to the increasing acceptance of gay marriage, including an endorsement from President Barack Obama, some Americans’ minds may, too, have been changed by the increasing presence of gay couples in popular culture.

According to a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll, 27% of people who had changed their minds about gay marriage from anti- to pro- in the last decade said that they made their decision after watching gay characters on shows like Modern Family and Glee.

Over the decades, TV shows have brought gay couples into viewers homes and humanized their struggle for equality. Here are some of the shows that made a difference.


billy crystal ted wass
Denis Plehn—ABC

Billy Crystal played the first openly gay character on TV in Soap when audiences met Jodie Dallas in 1977. Though advocates initially worried that the character played into negative stereotypes—dressing like a woman and alluding to suicidal thoughts—Crystal eventually won fans over with a emotional (if imperfect) portrayal.


roseanne barr

Roseanne featured both one of TV’s first same-sex kisses (in 1994) and one of its first same-sex marriage ceremonies between Roseanne’s boss Leon and his partner Fred. When advertisers threatened to pull out from the show, the actress said she would move her popular sitcom to another network.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Ellen DeGeneres: Yep, I'm Gay
Firooz Zahedi

Ellen DeGeneres made history when she came out on her sitcom Ellen and on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1997. “Now, I feel completely comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it — sort of,” she said in the interview.


Friends lesbian wedding gay marriage
Paul Drinkwater—NBC/Getty Images

In a show full of straight couples, Carol and Susan (Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hect) broke ground. Though Ross’ jealousy of his ex-wife Carol’s new partner, Susan, bordered on homophobic, the character redeemed himself when he walked his lesbian ex-wife down the aisle after her disapproving parents bailed on the wedding.

Will & Grace

will grace
NBC/Getty Images

Will & Grace was the first show featuring two gay characters (Will Truman played by Eric McCormack and Jack MacFarland played by Sean Hayes) to become a bonafide hit. Vice President Joe Biden has cited the show for educating America about gay rights.

Queer As Folk

showtime queer as folk
Mychal Watts—Getty Images

First a BBC show and then a Showtime production, Queer as Folk became a cultural milestone in the U.K. and America for bringing the same nuance to the sexual and emotional lives of gay people that had long been depicted in straight dramas.

The L Word

"The L Word"
Stephen Shugerman—Getty Images

The L Word was the first show to feature an ensemble of gay women. Though it had its problems (the cast was very beautiful, very thin and mostly white), it’s had a lasting legacy, as the show explored different sexual identities and addressed sexual fluidity in a way never seen on TV before.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Cast of 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'
Getty Images

Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) cast a spell over fans on Buffy. Viewers of the popular genre show were able to follow the budding relationship grow over the course of many seasons, a rare opportunity on TV.

Six Feet Under

SIX FEET UNDER, Michael C. Hall, Mathew St. Patrick, 2001-2005, © HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection
HBO/Everett Collection

David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) will be remembered for their stable and supportive relationship. Just like straight couples on TV, David and Keith had their ups and downs, but they were truly in love and became one of the first gay families (and one of the first interracial gay families) represented on TV when they married and adopted a child.

Brothers & Sisters

ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" - Season Five
Michael Desmond—ABC/Getty Images

The ABC drama not only handed over screen time to one of TV’s longest-running same-sex couples, Scotty and Kevin (Luke Macfarlane and Matthew Rhys), but also explored the difficulties gay couples can face in trying to adopt when their relationship isn’t fully recognized.

Grey’s Anatomy

Richard Cartwright—ABC

The Shonda Rhimes show has featured many same-sex couples over the course of its 11 seasons. (Other shows she produces like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder have also taken on issues of gay marriage and shown gay sex scenes—a rare feat on network television.) But the most memorable relationship has been that of Callie and Arizona (Sara Ramirez and Jessica Capshaw) who married and are currently raising a child together.

Modern Family

Mitch and Cam from ABC's Modern Family.
Peter "Hopper" Stone—ABC/Getty Images

Mitch and Cam (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) are arguably the most popular gay couple in the history of television. Modern Family continues to have great ratings and has won an impressive 21 Emmys. Though critics have pointed out that the couple doesn’t seem nearly as affectionate as their straight counterparts, Phil and Claire, Mitch and Cam’s relationship and eventual marriage showed the American public the similarities between straight and gay couples and advocated for equal protection under the law.


Darren Criss Chris Colfer glee
Kevin Winter—Getty Images

While some high school shows might dedicate an episode or two to sexual identity, Glee was one of the first to take the topic head-on with its introduction of Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer). Kurt eventually met Blaine (Darren Criss) and was permitted to have the same high school sweetheart romance—including losing their virginity to each other—so often celebrated with straight couples in pop culture.

Orange Is the New Black

Laura Prepon (L) and Taylor Schilling (R) in a scene from Netflix's Orange is the New Black Season 2.
Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling in Season 2 of 'Orange Is the New Black.'JoJo Whilden—Netflix

The female prisoners on Netflix’s show Orange Is the New Black represent a wide range of the sexuality spectrum, as the show has never shied away from presenting gay, bisexual and straight relationships and colorful sexual encounters.



Fans mourned after the HBO show was canceled after just two seasons. The dramedy about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco earned critical admiration for its realistic portrayal of modern gay life, especially as it came into its own in the second season. The show will get a wrap-up movie on the premium cable channel.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com